Friday 16 December 2011

Security should be everyone’s responsibility

There are two main enemies to security: convenience, and inconvenience. Better public education of the risks would make things safer.

"But I only wanted to check my Facebook."
(Photo: 48states, Wikipedia)

Security testing is a very specialised branch of software testing. Unlike most branches of software testing, where you’re simply trying to iron out things that go wrong by mistake, in security testing you’re fighting people trying to make things go wrong on purpose. It requires a lot of responsibility on the part of the testers and a lot of trust on the part of the clients – indeed, there are suspicions this gets abused – and consequently, many software testers won’t put themselves forward for security testing. Nevertheless, most testers will highlight security concerns as and when they notice them, and therefore take an interest in whichever high-profile security breach is in the news this week. Which brings me nicely on to of Hackgate.

Now, in case you lost track of the plot somewhere around episode 4,605 of the Leveson Inquiry, one of the latest developments is a claim that hacking extended to e-mails. At the moment, unlike phone hacking, this has not yet been proven or admitted to. But, quite frankly, it would come as no surprise if this turns out to be true. Like voicemails, the security surrounding personal e-mails has been notoriously lax, and practically an open invitation for hackers to pry into private matters.

In the olden days of workplace and university e-mails, your e-mails would typically be managed on a local server, which was great until you went home and had no e-mail access. This changed with the coming of Hotmail, Mailcity and many other web-based e-mail services that allowed anyone to read their e-mails anywhere in the world. The snag: this also allowed anyone in the world to read your e-mail, if could find a way round the password protection. And that was scarily easy: even if your intended victims hadn’t been silly enough to set their passwords, say, the names of their favourite pets, it was often a simple matter to use basic personal information, like a mother’s maiden name, to reset their password on the Forgotten Password page. Worse, it was (and still is) quite normal practice to store every e-mail you have ever sent and received on a server, ready for a hacker to pore over a lifetime of indiscretions. And in case you think this is just paranoid speculation: it’s happened, and it’s been nasty.[1]

In defence of Joe Public, it’s not easy to protect yourself when big IT companies routinely prioritise convenience over security, or – worse still – offer insecure products as standard when safer solutions already exist. When broadband first became popular, the “broadband modems” supplied by most ISPs offered virtually no protection from the outside world, even though routers with built-in firewalls were available at the time. (Windows firewall and other firewalls built into computers aren’t enough; it only takes one rogue program to switch it off and your protection’s gone.) Routers only became standard when wi-fi became popular, but this introduced the equally bad problem of unencrypted wi-fi; this was standard, and configuring encryption yourself was a nightmare. Internet suppliers have, thankfully, caught up with this and now routinely supply pre-configured encrypted routers, but even now new problems are emerging. Thanks to Facebook, we are being encouraged to put all of our personal information in semi-public view, even though this can be used by fraudsters to impersonate you. Meanwhile smartphone suppliers make it so easy to put so much personal information on your latest gadget, stolen smartphone are going like hotcakes not because of the handset but all the data you can use for identity fraud.

Large businesses, however, often make the opposite mistake to domestic users. They heavily lock down what users can do on the system, bog their computers down with bloated security software, refuse to consider any new software or upgrade of existing software without an overblown laborious “impact analysis” (meaning in practice that everything new becomes cost-prohibitive), and sometimes even prevent staff from encrypting data because it’s not in line with the security policy.

This Fort Knox-style mentality is just as dangerous, because it gives staff the choice: either work at snail’s pace on inefficient systems, or take short cuts such as bypassing security features or sending confidential documents to their home computers. I can’t help thinking that no-one would have copied poorly-encrypted data to two CDs that got lost in internal mail had suitable data transfer or encryption software been made available.

No, I think this problem can only be solved through better public education of IT security – and it has to go way beyond just saying “Install a virus checker” as if this takes care of everything. I don’t believe the farce at HMRC would have happened had they understood password protection is not the same as encryption, but I think we need to go further than IT departments. No-one would claim the latest safety features on a car is a substitute for a driving test, and the same principle should apply for computers. I don’t propose to ban people from using computers until they’ve passed a computing test – however tempting that may be – but we should be aiming for an online world where everyone understands the dangers. We don’t need to be paranoid about everything, but if we took a little more care with personal data – either properly protecting it, or even not leaving it lying around where it doesn’t need to be – cyberspace would be a much safer place.

[1] Okay, the tabloid e-mail intrusion went a bit further than this. It wasn't just cracking webmail passwords, it was outright hacking of people's own computers. But I'll bet it began with the easy opportunist snooping first and went on to more determined hacking once they realised how much information people were leaving around and how profitable this scheme was.

No comments:

Post a Comment